Myth, Religion and Kaleidoscopes

Because I’m interested in religion (though not a paid-up member) I’m interested in mythology. Religion and mythology, being bed-fellows, inter-penetrate. Both paint pictures that can be felt to convey deep-seated truths about ourselves and our world – which unadorned and prosaic literalism would seem to have much less ability to convey. 

The same is true when quantum physicists use words to attempt to interpret their formidably amazing mathematical equations – the accuracy, and therefore truth, of which can be experimentally verifiable to up to a dozen decimal points. They paint pictures of ‘dimensionless’particles; ‘waves‘ of probability; and of atoms (when not observed) being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. These are all ‘pointers’ to, but not literal descriptions of, whatever it is that’s fundamentally ‘real’. The very same is true, in my view, of religious ‘pictures’ such as those of incarnations, resurrections, ascensions and holy trinities, as well as of mythological ‘pictures’ whether of superhuman heroes, terrifying monsters, or seductively singing sirens.

I trace my awakening to this way of seeing things, to my discovery of Joseph Campbell’s ground-breaking study of comparative mythology, “The Masks of God”.  

Here’s an edited version of part of the Prologue to Volume One …..

“The  comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero, have a worldwide distribution – appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same. Furthermore, whereas in tales told for entertainment, such mythical themes are taken lightly, they appear also in religious contexts, where they are accepted not only as factually true, but even as revelations of the verities to which the whole culture is a living witness, and from which it derives both its spiritual authority and its temporal power.

No human society has yet been found in which such mythological motifs have not been rehearsed in liturgies; interpreted by seers, poets, theologians or philosophers; presented in art; magnified in song; and ecstatically experienced in life-empowering visions. Every people has received its own seal and sign of supernatural designation. And though many who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition rationally scrutinise and disqualify the sacraments of others, an honest comparison immediately reveals that all have been built from one fund of mythological motifs – variously selected, organised, interpreted, and ritualised, according to local need, but revered by every people on earth.

Are the modern civilisations to remain spiritually locked from each other in their local notions of the sense of the general tradition; or can we not now break through to some more profoundly based point and counterpoint of human understanding? The richly rewarded archeological researches of the past few decades; astonishing clarifications, simplifications and coordinations achieved by intensive studies in the spheres of philology, ethnology, philosophy, art history, folklore and religion; fresh insights in psychological research; and the many priceless contributions by the scholars, monks, and literary people of Asia, have combined to suggest a new image of the fundamental unity of the spiritual history of humanity.” 

Science, at its best, rests in no fixed and final verities. It’s always thinking new thoughts, and devising fresh experiments, in an openness to new insights and directions. Different scientific disciplines can complement and illuminate each other in their ongoing search into ‘how things are’. Religion, at its best, rests in no fixed and final verities, and isn’t padlocked to ancient books, and yesterday’s dogmas. It, too, is open to new experiences, discoveries and directions. Globalisation has generated the opportunity for religions to encounter and learn from one another, if literalism, exclusivism, and aspirations of ‘world domination’ are laid aside. 

This is not to say that all that’s past, must be dismissed and done away with. Quantum physics has opened up new and (even shockingly) different insights into reality, but the old Newtonian physics still enables us to land rockets on the moon. Foundations provide stability. They are there, however, not to be sat on, but to be built out from, in innovative and potentially unexpected ways. 

If the world-wide religious “kaleidoscope” is built from the same fundamental ‘mythical’ constituents, then all of these need a thorough ‘shaking’ so that new patterns can emerge, bringing fresh understanding, relevance and meaning. No risks – no growth – no hope. 

6 responses to “Myth, Religion and Kaleidoscopes

  1. “Kaleidoscopes” is misleading both in Campbell and then in what you say. Who does the shaking? What is their motivation? No one intelligent and educated denies commonality: there is after all a common human nature Campbell is mistaken when he speaks of elements ie myths being only a few and always the same. Resurrection may be common in a Greek myth or two and in Christianity; but the commonality is merely nominal- the Christian has a meaning and understanding the Greek myth does not. You are mistaken with your positive twist to globalisation (brought about by globalised capitalism) as a good thing that it can be used to our advantage.The answer is provided if rather rudely, by Blake: To generalise is to be an idiot; to particularise is the alone distinction of merit”. We are all divided by language, faith and culture. But why not be positive about the variety of particulars. instead of talkng about kaleidoscopes and mixing up to form new patterns. What is ignored in such talk by the western observer is that our society over the last few hundred years and most especially in recent years has had a kaleidoscope applied to it by the elites of the scientific , industrial, mechanised, globalised capitalist world that people have lost contact with their particular roots and need help in finding them again. .

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    1. Time, and historical and cultural evolution do the ‘shaking’. The ‘commonality’ is not “merely nominal”. Myth belongs to the unconscious, and its fundamental images are indeed ‘few’ in comparison with the multitude of contingent images which consciously arise from them. Of course the meanings thereupon differ. Some of the imagery in the second Genesis ‘creation’ account, (serpent, garden, tree etc) adapts previous imagery from the time of the Great Goddess to serve its own patriarchal purposes. This is what makes comparative mythology so fascinating and instructive – which, in my view, is being “positive about the variety of particulars”.
      Blake’s comment is, of course, itself a generalisation! Globalisation, like everything else, has, for the open mind, its positives and negatives. Whatever blame we may ascribe to various “elites” for our “loss of contact with particular roots”, (the decline in adherence to organised religion being one facet), what matters is that, although religion is built into the bricks of the human psyche, current religious paradigms are not hitting the mark for today’s generations.
      There needs to be a rediscovery, a refreshing, a reinterpretation, a revitalisation, of the ‘fundamentals’ so that they again begin to make a life and society changing impact. This has to involve us all – East as well as West – the sciences, humanities and arts, as well as religion. We now know how small, crowded and terribly fragile our planet is. If it is to have a future, there can no longer be any ‘chosen peoples’, with exclusive access to the transcendental and spiritual. Togetherness, and rediscovery of the fundamentals that can unite as well as the particulars that can divide, alone can save it, otherwise, all too soon, we’ll tear it apart in one way or another.

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      1. Initiatives in new creation in poetry, literature art etc will continue to be made. Some of these may be critically found to develop into something interesting. But the process is vital. organic or non-existent. It cannot be arranged into being by detached rational-minded representatives. Your idea that there can be some process” of involving us all” is fantasy. You cannot have a world-wide process because that is top=down and there are far too many particulars to bring together. Blake is relevant because he has to fight to create new expression from out the strait-jacket of an over -rational minded culture, exemplified by the culture imposed by Locke and Newton. He has hardly any contemporary readers because people are never prepared in advance for the new. Similarly we have to await for the new to beak through our combined over-rationalism (only objective truth is real) and our over- subjectivism ( living my truth). We can only seek to keep fresh the links to what is valuable in the past and trust that the new will be able to graft on as Eliot broke through to new expression b y realising the importance for him of John Donne.

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        1. It seems to me, Alan, that you’re not following where I, and more importantly, Joseph Campbell, and the likes of Carl Jung, are coming from. I wonder if you’ve read some of their writings. If so, I can’t imagine where the idea of anything being “arranged into being by detached, rational-minded representatives” could conceivably have come from. What on earth have myth, and its archetypal roots in the depths of the human psyche, to do with being a “detached, rational-minded representative”? Carl Jung, like Joseph Campbell, has been accused of being an ‘irrational mystic’, but never the other. If anything is “fantasy”, that would be it.
          If we take the Myth of the Quest for the Castle of the Grail, it’s key that the quester does not know where it is, and has no detailed map to follow. If, however, the quester continues seriously, understandingly, openly, and resolutely “in the way”, the Grail Castle may well ‘find’ him or her. That’s how it works, and it’s got absolutely nothing to do with “detached rational-mindedness”.
          If enough people today, could die to their hindering hostilities and prejudices, and rise to an opening of too often sealed-off minds and, with honesty, respect and humility, actively listen to, and learn from, each other, there’s no knowing what new, fresh, life-giving and affirming myth or ‘zeitgeist’ might emerge from our common, ‘spiritual’ depths.
          Such things are beginning to happen, as a you-tube trawl evidences, with Physicists and Neuroscientists dialoguing with progressive Christians and Buddhists among others, and this in the context of a new and promising focus on the possible fundamental primacy of Mind and Consciousness, and so of Intelligence, Information and Design, even if not a ‘Designer’. This may not be ‘up your street’, but it’s certainly up mine and, while not ‘holding my breath’, I’m resolved to continue “in the way”, until either the ‘Castle of the Grail’, or the great adventure of Death, finds me, or us.
          My regards, Alan, as ever.

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          1. Of course I am not responding to Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, both of whom are of interest to me and are individual thinkers worthy of respect. I am responding to how you put things in hoping conclaves of elites representing a scientific specialism of some kind and are of approved “progressive” credentials Christians and Buddhists here that making a significant difference to the culture working from the ground up. Why do I mention Blake : because he was fighting for his creative life to express himself against the psychic imbalance of the over culture? Why do you think I am a great admirer of D. H. Lawrence who talks all the time about the psyche and unconscious and its influences?. Ok it is nice thatlittle conclaves gather together and talk-I have nothing against that ( I have attended such meetings myself): to think however, that will dramatically alter things is a fantasy. People like Jordan Peterson and Paul Kingsnorth are [perhaps making a difference I think because they draw young people who respect what they say and may go and seek to wean themselves away from the deadening and disintegrating influences of our culture, in its post-Christian hopelessness. They encourage the fight and they encourage responsibility. I personally am looking all the time for such voices with an authentic sound to them like Wendell Berry. So please don’t equate me with people with sealed-up minds etc simply because I happen to question what you are saying.

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            1. Alan, when I simply refer to people from different disciplines and religions getting together to share with each other, and find this being transformed into “conclaves of elites” of people with “approved credentials”, I wonder what’s going on in your mind that is certainly not going on in mine.
              “Psychic imbalance” is one of the key issues Jung addresses, and it’s his discovery of the dynamic of ongoing ‘enantiodromia’ (or ‘balancing’ at its simplest) which provides one (note that) explanation for the way in which, throughout human history, new ways of seeing things have arisen in contradistinction to what has gone before. The Yin-Yang archetype comes to mind.
              To me, you haven’t taken on board the point I was making about the Grail Myth. It isn’t that what you choose to call “nice little conclaves” can or will, in themselves, give birth to a new zeitgeist. It’s about the coming into being, and growth, of groups (and individuals – Peterson is one) being “in the way” that gives a hopeful signal, and offers a possible opportunity, for the unexpected to happen in its own way. There is, as I said, no ‘road map’. I have no ‘fantasy’ about this. I’ve said I’m not holding my breath. What more do I need to say to clarify this misunderstanding?
              As far as “post-Christian hopelessness” is concerned, Christianity is one religion among many, and is, in the final analysis (please note that), no more ‘special’ in my view than any other. If Christianity’s current ‘paradigm’ is not ‘hitting the mark’ for today’s ‘up and coming’ generations then, rather than finding others to blame, I think it needs to work hard and long at ‘re-discovering’ itself, (and I would add, with the assistance of others) or risk further descent into irrelevance and decline, which would be needlessly sad. Once again, no breath is being held.
              Nowhere in what I wrote did I equate you with “people with sealed-up minds”. You and I should respect each other too much to go down that road. I think you know that I am much opposed to the ad-hominem approach and refuse to engage in it. In my view, it all too often contaminates discourse. I write what I write in these blogs without fear or favour, deliberately making no personal applications, and leaving it up to my readers to make their own. I try to keep in mind the words of one who said, “judge not lest you be judged”.
              I hope the sun continues to shine on the rest of you day. Regards to both.

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